When the Tampa Bay Rays came to Camden Yards this past weekend, there were some things all of Birdland knew we’d see. We knew that this would be the hardest fought series of the season—and it was. We knew that this series would be the closest thing to a playoff atmosphere we’ve seen since 2014—and it absolutely was. We knew that, for better or worse, this series could define the Orioles’ playoff destiny—and after fighting back to earn a 2-2 split, the Orioles still squarely control their own destiny.
However, what we didn’t know is how the Baby Birds would show up in the biggest, most pressure-packed moment they’ve experienced as professionals. Yes, the likes of Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and the rest of this young core have routinely exceeded expectations and handled adversity like seasoned veterans. However, they’re also not immune to struggling from time to time—especially when faced with new circumstances. After all, Adley did struggle to the tune of a .207 average and .614 OPS over his first month in the big leagues. The first six weeks of Gunnar’s 2023 season were equally turbulent, as the presumptive AL Rookie of the Year was battling calls for his demotion while hitting .178 with a .648 OPS.
And yet, when exposed to the first playoff-esque games of their career, Adley, Gunnar and so many other Baby Birds proved why they’re ready for October baseball. As we look back at perhaps the most exciting four game split in Orioles history, I’ll break down everything we saw from the youngest O’s against Tampa and how this performance should bleed over into the postseason.
Series stats: 4-18, 3 runs, 2 HRs, 4 RBIs, 7 Ks
While it was certainly an up and down series for the Orioles’ stud rookie infielder, Gunnar’s battle with the Rays showed that he won’t shy away from the big moment when the postseason comes. In the series opener, with the O’s down 3-1, Gunnar breathed life back into the Orioles offense with a solo HR to lead off the 4th. After suffering the deflating feeling of taking an early lead only to give it right back in the next inning, Gunnar changed the energy in Camden Yards with that blast as the Orioles went on to tie the game an inning later. While they didn’t ultimately escape that Thursday game with a win, the O’s star shortstop reaffirmed the faith all of Birdland has in him when it comes to delivering the big statement hits that can jump start an offense.
Gunnar then doubled down on his clutch factor with his performance in the O’s domination of the Rays on Saturday. Heading into that game the situation was pretty dire: Baltimore was on a four-game losing streak, the bats had gone silent and the Rays worked their way into a virtual tie atop the division. While Grayson Rodriguez was busy shoving on the mound (and we’ll get to him), Gunnar led an offensive charge that silenced all the concern around the Orioles offense. In going 3-5, the rookie delivered his third three-hit game of September and his two-run home run in the 2nd inning gave the Orioles the first sense of breathing room they’d had all series.
We shouldn’t ignore the fact that mixed in with those towering home runs was a fair amount of swing and miss and a couple of 0-fers. This is just the good with the bad that will always come with the aggressive nature of Gunnar’s game. We shouldn’t be surprised—or overly critical—when he puts up a three-K game come October. But if his series against Tampa showed anything, it’s that Birdland’s favorite Country Boy can shake off a couple of Ks to deliver big hits from the heart of the Orioles’ lineup.
Series stats: 4-16, 2 runs, 1 2B, 1 HR, 3 RBIs, 4 Ks
In a lot of ways, Adley’s contributions to the Orioles’ efforts didn’t really show up until the series finale. Heading into Sunday’s game, the O’s All-Star backstop was only 1-11 and struggling to make an impact in the biggest series of the year. Then, with the division lead and a postseason appearance on the line, Adley delivered the best game of his Orioles career to close out the series.
The American League’s best catcher put the pressure on the Rays from the early going, hitting a one-out double in the bottom of the 1st to give the O’s their first scoring threat. However, where Adley truly shone was in the way he inspired the Orioles’ dramatic late-inning comeback. With the Orioles behind 3-1 down to their final out in the 8th inning, Adley commenced an epic battle with flame-throwing closer Peter Fairbanks. After falling behind 1-2, Rutschman fouled off a 100mph fastball and a slider on the black to keep the at-bat alive. Then, when Fairbanks tried to challenge him with triple-digits high and inside, Adley turned on the 101mph fastball and sent it into the RF bleachers.
In case a home run against one of the game’s nastiest closers wasn’t clutch enough, Rutschman came back for more in the 10th. With the O’s trailing 4-3 and once again down to their last out, Adley took a 0-1 sinker from Shawn Armstrong back up the middle to bring home Aaron Hicks and once again give the O’s new life. It was only right that, in the bottom of the 11th, Adley was the one to score the game-winning run on Cedric Mullins’ sac fly.
Orioles magic is alive and well. pic.twitter.com/1FtTkgQ0y7— Baltimore Orioles (@Orioles) September 17, 2023
While the former No. 1 overall pick didn’t necessarily have a better all around series than Gunnar or other members of the O’s lineup, he showed why he’s seen as a team leader in only his second season. When you look at the other players who had big hits Sunday—Austin Hays, Mullins—you see the veterans that you’d expect to remain calm in the most “do or die” moments. Rutschman is only 257 games into his big league career, but the type of calm and composure he showed Sunday is that of a 10-year veteran and is the type of approach he’ll bring to October baseball.
Series stats: W, 8 IP, 5 hits, 0 ER, 7 Ks, 0 BBs
I’ll be the first to admit that when the Orioles called Grayson Rodriguez back up in August, I thought there was next to no chance he’d be a member of the postseason rotation. Between his early season struggles and potential concerns about workload and innings limits, I was convinced that G-Rod was destined for a bullpen role come October. After his performance against the Rays on Saturday, there’s now no doubt in my mind that Rodriguez should slot right behind Kyle Bradish in the postseason rotation.
Throwing eight shutout innings against the second best team in the American League is not something rookies normally do. Add in the context of the Orioles having their backs against the wall after squandering their division lead, and Rodriguez’s performance Saturday night becomes all the more astounding.
Early in the year, the 23-year-old righty struggled with opponents teeing off on his fastball while also failing to make the type of adjustments that allowed him to go deep into starts. Saturday, the Rays only hit .185 off the G-Rod heater and all seven of his punchouts came off his fastball. And while the fastball was the weapon of choice early in the game, Rodriguez worked in more changeups and curveballs in the later innings to keep the Rays hitters off balance.
Grayson Rodriguez, 6th and 7th Ks.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 17, 2023
8 scoreless innings.
Well done. pic.twitter.com/d9FylX8c29
The ability to make that adjustment shows how Rodriguez has evolved from the “guy that throws hard” he was at the beginning of the year to now being a real big league pitcher. The Orioles will need more than just a collection of decent starting pitchers come October. Eventually there will come a moment where a starter needs to step up to close out a series or be the stopper after a couple losses. We all knew that Bradish could be that guy—now we know the O’s have two of those guys at the top of the rotation.
Series stats: L, 7 IP, 7 hits, 4 ER, 5 Ks, 0 BBs
Including Bradish in this group may seem like an odd decision. After all, he did end up taking the L in Thursday night’s series opener. However, it’s the way Bradish responded to a rough inning in that start that should speak volumes to all members of Birdland. After Ryan O’Hearn spotted him a 1-0 with a solo HR in the bottom of the 2nd, Bradish came out in the top of the 3rd and didn’t have his best stuff. Three of the first four batters he faced singled and then Oriole-killer Randy Arozarena tripled into the RF corner to see Tampa take a 3-0 lead.
As a pitcher experiencing the ups and downs of being the Game 1 starter in a quasi-playoff series for the first time, it would have been unsurprising to see Bradish fall apart after giving up that big inning. Instead, Bradish retired 10 of the next 11 hitters he faced before giving up the solo HR that proved to be the game winner for Tampa.
The fact that he was able to lock back in after getting a little loose in the 3rd inning is another reminder of the ace qualities Bradish possesses. In an actual postseason game—where overusing the bullpen is less of a concern— Brandon Hyde probably doesn’t send Bradish out for the 7th. Then maybe we’re talking about the gutsy quality starter Bradish delivered which allowed the Orioles to come from behind to steal a game. Either way, in now way should Thursday’s loss shake the confidence Birdland has in Bradish for even one second.
The Orioles still have another 13 games to prove they’re ready to tackle everything October baseball has to throw at them. However, none of those games will match the playoff-like intensity we saw at the Yard this past weekend. If the performance against the Rays is to be believed, the Baby Birds are ready to graduate to October heroes when the postseason roles around in two weeks.
Which Baby Bird will make the biggest contribution in October?
Other (tells us in the comments)